|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: August 6, 2002
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Do you think your style of leadership was different from other people's?
It's always been a very collaborative one. You know when I said that that I think is probably the secret of my success, I had terrific staff at Phillip. Dale Hickey, Rod Bishop, Dom de Clario whom I'd already met, Joe Delutis. Wonderful - you know, good artists, good teachers, and we always work as a team. There's never any real hierarchy.
I know there is. There's a hierarchy in the fact that I was a Dean and probably getting a bit bigger salary than anyone else, but there was no hierarchy of opinion. And I think that has happened wherever I've gone. And my success, really, has been the success of those people, combined, and the fact that I probably encouraged them to do their thing and gave them space to do it in.
See, Rod was a very important person, and, and I was able to elect him as my Principal Lecturer. And, ah, he was a very valuable member of staff. There's always one member of staff that you'd like to take with you when you move on, and Rod was one. John Stringer was another, from Western Australia. There's always someone that you feel is very special, and you feel sad to leave behind.
Did your background in teaching affect your leadership style? You said that you always looked for the special qualities in people, in, in your students when you were teaching. Did you do the same with your staff?
Probably. I, I was ... I could recognise what was good about them, and, ah, and then - I've never felt threatened. You know a lot of people spend half their life looking over their shoulder, worrying about someone seeming to be better than they are. I didn't care. I wanted them to be better than I was, because the better they were, the better the whole operation of the school was, and the whole, um, system was.
So from that point of view, um, I was a very egalitarian leader, and always have been, and its - I've always torn my hair watching my - people come after me, getting rid of all of their strength, all of their top people, moving them off the scene, simply because they felt a little bit ... I presume a bit threatened by them, and not realising that those were the very people that were going to make them flourish. But, that's how that was.
So you were never going to be hierarchical in the way you ran things, the way your mother had run the household where you were growing up?
No, probably might have been a reaction against that, because Mum was very hierarchical. She would never let me bring children home, because if - in case the house was untidy. Um, and there were these very strict rules. Saturday was my day to clean the house and I would - you know, had to do the whole thing like a cleaner would do, you know, top to bottom.
And it didn't matter, you know, if there was a birthday party, whatever was on, I had to do that. That was my ... "No, that's your job. That's your responsibility." And I'd bleat, "What about Ian?" "Oh, Ian has to mow the ... the lawn." And Ian did have to mow the lawn, but the house took longer. But anyway, she had these rigid rules, and I don't think ... I think I've reacted against that, probably a little bit too much.
I remember saying to the kids once, "I'm really disappointed you didn't ever bring your friends home". You know, I wanted this lovely open - it was an old Queenslander house we had in Indooroopilly - and I wanted kids coming in and out, and, and Ben said, "Are you kidding?" And I said, "No, why?" He said, "Well, Dad was up the back in the studio". He'd been in New Guinea and he'd decided that the only garb, sensible garb in Queensland was the New Guinea laplap.
And he was up in the back with a laplap and they were not going to bring their kids home and have their father walk out in a laplap. So there are restraints that you don't even know about.
Now after you had had this success with leading the Phillips [sic] Institute, and you had moved it forward, hadn't you? In what way had you changed it? How did you leave your stamp there?
I've never actually thought about that. I, I can think what I did in Western Australia and at the National Gallery but, ah, at Phillip, probably by, um, allowing those rather special people better, um, room to move ... I don't know that I made a terrific, er, difference to Phillip. I think Brian Seidel had established, you know, that open system before me which was really valuable.
Where students ... you know, he um, introduced, you know, the, the sound element, the film and sound aspect of the school, and that was ... and the photography. That was all very important. I improved it, I s'pose, from health and safety. I remember the - in the photography, they were in these - in this, you know, building, enclosed building, with these terrible fumes.
And I remember spending -and winning, you know - the money for building, you know, big exhaust things so that the students didn't die of some terrible toxic fumes, because, you know, really they should not be working under those circumstances. And the, the Art School then was from that point of view, really inadequate. And that's the only thing I can think of, really.
Did the family take to Melbourne?
Yes, they did. I think Roy didn't so much. I think Roy loved Brisbane, but then of course, he was in his studio in his lap lap, you know. He wasn't having to cope with that heat in normal European clothes. But, ah, oh, Peter just fell on his feet. Peter hated Brisbane. He was a real little outsider in Brisbane, 'cause Brisbane was very much, you know, boys, you know. And there was Pete. Pete loved knitting, and Pete loved making little finger puppets, you know, and doing little things like that.
And painting eggs. He did this marvellous - marvellous paintings on blowing, you know, just a hen's egg and doing these wonderful little decorated eggs. Not the occupation of a boy in Brisbane, and he was ... the life was teased out of him. And when he went to Melbourne, of course, he fell right on his feet, you know, because of that imaginative, artistic life was admired and allowed to flourish.
A much better place for a boy who was going to be an artist.
Oh! Yes. Much better. And the school was much better. He - Peter is very bright, and he'd gone off, without my knowing it, to sit the exam for the scholarship to go to St Peter's Lutheran College in Brisbane. We couldn't afford to send a child to a, you know, a private school, and he won the scholarship. And I was a bit cross, because Tim, who was coming after, I thought would probably not win a scholarship and I thought, "That's very unfair".
You know, that the one child is at this special school and the other child is not. But as it happened, that's when the break came and I could move them to Melbourne. But I don't think St Peter's was really any better than University High where I found them, eventually. You know, I did my school testing. University High was the only one I would countenance.
And then I had to find a house within University High's zone, which was Brunswick. That's how we came to live in Brunswick. And the two boys, Peter and Tim, both went to University High and I think, got an education better than they would have got at a private school in Brisbane.
Roy was an artist working in Brisbane with all his contacts there. His dealers, his outlets, his reputation based there. Did you think that it was a big ask for him to move all of that down to Melbourne?
It was a big ask, and it's been a big ask every time we've moved, because he's been moving away, as you say, from the whole environment that he's built. It doesn't matter so much with dealers, because you can still exhibit in Brisbane, you can still exhibit wherever. But you lose your support system, to some extent.
And I was conscious of that. On the other hand, you know, I, I was the one that was earning the living and keeping the whole ship afloat and I had to keep, you know, moving that forward. And people used to say to me, "Oh, aren't you lucky that Roy is a, you know, moveable feast", as it were. You know, that - you know, he's not tied into a job.
And this is a problem with couples, you know, when they're both professionals, and one's profession leads in this way and another profession leads them that way. Roy's profession, because it is home based, studio based, was, in a sense, transportable, but only in a sense. You're quite right. It was um, difficult for him.
And I think he really fell on his feet and loved - he loved Brisbane, but he also loved Fremantle, living in Perth, in Western Australia.
Right. Well that was the next move, wasn't it?
Yes. The next move.
And how did that come about, Betty? There you were an academic, and you were, you know, doing very well there and leading your institute. People might have thought that at the age you were then - you were well into your fifties by the time you had finished there - that you would stay there, that that was ... you'd found where you were. What brought about the change?
Well, it - I was actually headhunted for the Art Gallery of Western Australia and I think that I had made quite a, um, reputation for myself on the Australia Council. I was Chair of the Visual Arts Board, then I became Deputy Chair of the Council itself, and that brings you into Australia wide prominence, you know. You're noticed.
And I think it was Janet Holmes à Court that had noticed, and when Robert Holmes à Court was made the Chairman of the Board of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, I think Janet suggested that when he was drawing up his list for the headhunter, that they look at me, because I just got a phone call from the headhunter.
Would I go in and, ah - for this interview? And I thought at the time, "Well, my gosh". I was just ready - I'd just done eight years at Phillip, I'd gone almost my ... I'd never been I don't think eight years - more than eight years anywhere. You know, eight years is enough I think to get yourself - to do what you want to do. Anyway, I'd done my eight years and, ah, I'd always thought, you know, where I'd really like to be is working in an art gallery, but thought I'd missed the bus.
But had never thought of, you know, jumping all of those stages that gets you forward in an art gallery, and jumping into the top seat. And so it seemed too good to be true. Had a long, long, half-day interview with this headhunter, and then I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. And so I thought, oh well, you know, so I kept moving ...
But I kept getting phone calls from the headhunter and saying, "Was I still interested?" And I was saying, "Yes". And months went by. Literally months. And then he rang up again. It's about late October, early November. He said, "Are you still interested?" I said, "Well actually, no." I said, "I'm beginning to think about the next academic year now and this has gone on forever. It can't go on". "Oh", he said, "Look, don't, don't drop it".
And I thought he was interested, the headhunter, and the next thing I said - he rang up in a couple of days. He said, "Look, they want you to go over there, to fly over". I said, "Oh, that's good. Is this for the interview?" And he said, "Um, not sure. Not sure, but just to go over". There was my clue, you see. Robert was doing to him what he did to me. He had no idea what Robert wanted.
So I flew over for this interview, and it was the most bizarre interview. If ever anything was telling me what I was dealing with, it was all built into that interview. Becaause the interview - I had the day at the gallery, so I'd looked at the gallery thoroughly, I'd talked to the senior members of staff, I'd looked at the store room, I'd tried - you know, because I thought all of these questions they're likely to ask me.
And the interview was for five o'clock, so I turned up at about quarter to five. And I'm sitting outside the boardroom, thinking as you do, you know, "Now if they ask me about West Australian artists, what will I say?" 'Cause I don't know a lot about Western Australian artists. Trying really to keep focused.
And then I, I looked at the clock and it was twenty to six. And I thought, "Well, that's very odd, to be as late as that, but don't lose your focus. Now, you know, what about, you know, Australian art in relation to international art? You know, what will I say about that?" So I'm really sort of still thinking. And you know, I look at the clock and it's half past six.
This is an hour and a half. I think this is bizarre. And my first thought - this is typical female stuff - my first thought was, they've forgotten. Now I'd better creep away so as not to embarrass them. And then I thought, "No, blow it. I'll jolly well embarrass them. I'm going to be sitting here, my arms folded, and when they come out I'll say, 'Good evening gentlemen, I hope you had a good meeting. I have been sitting out here since five o'clock in the afternoon!'"
And just as I got really bolshie, someone comes out and says, "Would you come in?" So I've lost all of my composure, all of my focus and I go in there, I'm still feeling a little bit bolshie, though, I have to say. And Robert - I don't know whether you ever - he was, you know, tall, dignified, and he used to use silence as a weapon to beat you over the head with.
So he introduced me around the table ... [INTERRUPTION]
So he introduced me around the table in a desultory sort of way as if it was neither here nor there, and I didn't feel in any way that this was an important event. And he indicated where I was to sit, which was next to him. He was at the head of table, so I sat down.
And he sat at the table with his hands like this. Fingers pointing. Dead silence. And I'm bolshie enough to think, "No, I'm not going to ... this is your game. You play it. I'm not going to ..." So I sit silent. And now I think, he and I were the only still things there, 'cause the rest of the table - nobody would dare speak until he spoke.
So there's much rustling of paper and shifting in chairs. Nervousness. And this silence stretches, and stretches, and I'm thinking, "No, I'll sit here till eight o'clock if you wish. I'm not going to say anything". And he suddenly - he hadn't looked at me - he snaps his head to the side where I'm sitting, and he says "You've just been appointed the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia". What do you say? "Golly", or "Gee" or "Thanks"?
Or no thanks! ...
So I said nothing ... Or no thanks! Yes, that didn't enter my head. So I said nothing. And he said, "Have you got anything to say?" And I said, "Well, I've no questions to ask about the, um, gallery, because I've spent a day familiarising myself there". I said, "The terms and conditions have never been discussed". And this, if I'd pushed a week old herring under his nose, the expression on his face of absolute disgust, you know, as if I'd said something revolting. And he said, "Oh, I don't know".
He said, "A professorial salary plus a thousand". I said, "Oh, that's good". I said, "What's that?" He said, "I don't know". And that was my - how I got appointed to the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Very funny, but really, he was a very difficult man to work with. Wonderful man, you know, and I learnt a huge amount from him. I admired his composure and his ability, but he was a killer.
You know, he really was. One of the things he taught me that was most valuable is not to rush headlong into things, to wait. He'd just say, "Wait. Let it fall into your lap". You know, and really, you can precipitate, or try to precipitate things. Let them take their full course, but you've got to have nerves of steel, and he had nerves of steel.
And, ah, but it was a very valuable lesson, and I've used it, to success ...
Could you give me an example of how that worked for you, running an art gallery?
Well, one of the things was that the, ah, government, without consulting me, then the Director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, bought a collection ... a Louis ... an American collector had collected a lot of Aboriginal art. This man called Louis Allen. And they'd bought this collection for then, I think it was two million dollars.
Without consulting the gallery or without any indication of where this collection was going to reside. And I thought, well this is some of the most important Aboriginal art that's coming into the country. It needs to have a proper home. And I was desperate to fight to have it at the gallery. They were going to put it at some - there was an old brewery there that the government was trying to develop, and they were trying to put it in there.
And I knew they were going to make a theme park out of it. They were going to have, you know, a hologram with an old man telling a story, and the smoke, you know. It was just going to be awful. And treating Aboriginal art in a way that I really didn't think it should be treated. You know, as a, as a, um, ethnographic curio rather than a great work of art.
And I felt very strongly about this. And he told me, "No. Don't fight for it. Wait. Let them find out that their scheme is, is stupid and foolish and then they'll be coming to you saying, 'What shall we do with this marvellous collection of Louis Allen?'" And as I said, nerves of steel, because I did not want to lose this. But I got it in the end.
So they did find out? They did find out that that wasn't a good idea?
Oh, they didn't have the money, the Aboriginal community objected strenuously to what they were going to do, they were saying that that particular point was a sacred site and they weren't allowed to alter it, and, ah, no, it, it had endless problems. They've now developed the - I was in Perth recently - they've now developed it as a residential area, but what they were planning for it was abysmal.
You said that you learnt things from him, but that he was very difficult. In what ways was he difficult?
He was difficult in that he was an absolute control freak. Absolute control freak. I've never met anyone quite like it. I thought that his aim was for the gallery to progress and therefore he, as Chairman, you know, would be seen to be doing a good job. And ah, that that would be the most important thing.
The most important thing was that I did what he said, and an example of that is when I wanted to set a foundation up. He taunted me that, you know, I hadn't set a foundation up. And I said, thought, "Well, he's right. I haven't got round to that yet". So I went to this person in Western Australia who I knew was very good at this, asked him would he help me. He'd just raised a lot of money for the um, oh, Lawrence ... ah, Gallery in - at the ... you know, at the University of Western Australia.
He said, "Oh, look, I've just raised all of this money for the Lawrence Wilson Gallery". I said, "Oh, come on Ivan. Be a sport, just for me". He said, "Well look, I'll do it if you let - if I can pick my team. I don't want people there for the social cachet. I want people that'll actually work. I want Kerry Stokes to be the Chair. I want Kerry Stokes to be the first donor, you know, that'll start the ball running [sic]".
"If you ... if you can promise me that". So I went to Robert, and I said, "Robert, great news. We're getting on with this, um, foundation. I've got Ivan Hoffman working for me. I've got Kerry Stokes going to be in the Chair". "Oh", he said. "You can't do that. Can't do that". And of course, that was me putting the opposition into a senior position, which I never even thought of.
And I said - "But" - he - I said, "Why?" He said, "You've got Ivan Hoffman doing all the work and Kerry Stokes getting all the glory". I said, "No, no, no. This is what Ivan wants. This is Ivan's scheme, to make it work". "No", he said. "You can't do it. I'll be in the Chair". So I thought, "Oh well. If you will, you will".
So I went back to Ivan and said, '"Look, Ivan, Robert's got to be in the Chair. He wants to be ..." "Well", he said, "Forget it. Forget it". He said, "There'll be no meetings, he's never here, it'll be, you know, it just won't work. Count me out". So I thought, "Well if it means that to you, um, do what you want to do, put Kerry in the Chair and I'll wear it". 'Cause I thought, I'd, you know, be persecuted for a while, but then he'd see it would work, and it did, you know.
Ivan started raising money immediately. And then I thought, "Well then he'll let ... see, oh well, it worked", you know. He never forgave me, and that was the beginning of the end. That's how I had to get out. He just kept on and on and on. Every time I made a move, he'd pull the trip rope and I'd fall flat on my face. And I'd pick myself up and dust myself down and move on in that direction, and he'd pull the trip rope.
He was just not going to let me operate after that.
And this wasn't just in relation to the foundation? It was in relation to the entire gallery.
For everything I did, from thereon. I had deliberately and blatantly gone against what he'd said, and that he could not tolerate. And he was just going to - he was driving me out, you know. And indeed he did drive me out. But, um, in the middle of all this - when this was happening - this was after about three years I'd been there, I get the phone call from Canberra to say was I interested in Canberra.
And I - my first reaction was no, 'cause I'd only been there three years. So I said, "Not really". It was Cathy Santamaria who rang me from the department. I said, "Not really. I've only been here three years". I said, "What about Patrick McCaughey I kept thinking of people that, you know, might be appropriate.
Because they'd come - drawn a blank in their initial advertising. And then about ten days later, something else happened that Robert did, and I remember sitting at my desk thinking, "I can't cope with this". And I thought, "Mmm, I wonder do I have to?" And I rang up Canberra. I said, "Is that position still available?" She said, "Yeah". And I said, "Okay, count me in".
And Robert used to do this thing. He'd ring me up and I had to go down to his office. And always he'd keep me waiting for forty-five minutes. Not forty-six or forty-four, always forty-five minutes. So this occasion - I knew I'd got the job in Canberra - but I was going to just tell him why, you know. Not tell him I'd got the job but tell him, you know, what my problem was working with him.
So I sat there. He had a girl in the outside office - and Val, his personal was in there but she'd every now and then get up and go. So I waited 'till it got to forty-four minutes, and fortunately, the girl in the outside office got up and went in and I just ducked into the ladies, which was just here, and I waited there. Forty-five, forty-six, forty-eight minutes. And at about fifty minutes I came out, and it's the only time I've ever caught him on his back heel.
He was standing out there looking around like this. "Oh", he said, "I thought you'd gone". "Oh", I said, "Robert, I wouldn't do that". And then I went - we went into this office and oh - and I told him exactly, you know, what my problems were, you know, and how we'd have to find a modus operandi, otherwise it was just, you know, nothing was ever going to happen.
And he virtually told me - he said, "Well, you're wilful", ah, and he wouldn't concede that anything that I was doing was right. And I said, "Well, in what ... in what way do you want it to happen?" But of course he didn't have a way. All he wanted to do was to be in control. And in the end - so I voiced all of my complaints in a reasonable way, but I voiced them - and he sits there in silence.
And then the silence stretches, and then he gets up, gets his papers into order, walks towards the door to go and I thought, "My God, he's not going to say anything". And when he gets to the door - I'd said to him, "Well, what are we going to do, Robert?" You know, I wanted some, you know, way to move forward, because I, I hadn't accepted the job in Canberra at this time and I was just still trying to think what I was going to do.
And when he got to the door, he turned around and he said, "I'll let you know". And it was almost as if, you know, it was the Mafia saying, "Cement slippers for you, girl. You've had it". And I thought, "Oh well, that's it. I'm off". You know, there was such a threat in it. You know, "I'll let you know what I'm going to do". And, ah, I just couldn't cope with that any more.
I remember on one occasion - he used to ring me up from London, to ask how things were going. And you'd tell him. And then there'd be these long, long pauses. And you could either gabble nervously, and on this occasion, I used to prop the phone and I'd do things, 'cause, you know, I was writing this letter, talking to him.
And I got engaged in this letter, and I was writing page after page of this letter and then suddenly I thought, "What's this?" You know, this phone was sort of - I'd completely forgotten that I was in conversation with Robert. And I said, "Oh Robert, are you still there?" Long silence. "I was beginning to wonder if you were."
And it was all cat-and-mouse game, you know. Like, exactly as a cat playing with a mouse, is what he was doing with me. You know, giving me a little bit of a lead, letting me think everything was alright, and then you know how a cat will just put out its claw and pull the mouse back? You know, there was a lot of that.
So sadly, I left Western Australia, which I loved. You know, I was very happy there. [INTERRUPTION]
What was happening in the gallery ...
In the Art Gallery of Western Australia?
... yes - at the time. I mean, you were having this difficulty with your Chairman, and the Board, presumably, was intimidated and unable to stand up to him.
Um, so what was actually happening with the gallery itself? Were you able to do anything interesting?
Yes, I was. I was really able to do a lot at the gallery. Ah, one of the first thing [sic] I did was to import John Stringer, who had been working in - he was an Australian but had been working in New York for years. And, um, I had a senior position coming up, and I knew he would be marvellous. So I got him to apply and to come across and, um, I was able to employ three or four members of staff, you know, key members of staff, that really made the gallery sing.
He really got the thing going. He was one of those people who could make - hang a gallery to make it look beautiful, and um, I was able to get some extensions done to the gallery. Trying to make it a - much more a part of the life of Perth.
One of the things I did - it was, it was a beautiful gallery, I think, beautifully designed gallery, you know. Designed around a central foyer which was - with the galleries going off like spokes in the wheel. It was lovely. But it presented a fairly closed face to the rest of Perth. So we built a, ah, a café restaurant at the front so that was - opened it up. So people could come into the restaurant, to the café and then move on to the gallery.
And it somehow just sort of freed up the, ah, people movement in the gallery. And wherever I've been, it has been motivated by trying to make people enjoy the place, I insisted on the curators putting up a little bit more information, not a lot. I hate it when they put up a whole half page of text and try to give you an art history lesson, but just little interesting things about the, um, picture, to make people look a little harder.
An example that I can give you is that once we had an exhibition which had a little Constable in it. And ah, down in the bottom, you could just see a little bit of light on a roof. And I said to the curator, "Well, for instance, if you say that the cottage down in the left hand corner there is the cottage of Willie Lott, who was the lock-keeper, you know, at the, um, Constable's father's mill", that in itself - people will have to look, they'll see a cottage being ... has been represented with just a stroke of white paint and all of that.
Then you don't have to say any more. And, and I noticed - then I watched people look at it. They'd read this little label, and you see them - "Cottage? cottage?" - you see them looking hard. "Oh!", you know, they'd step back and look at it and suddenly this little stroke of white paint became the light on a roof. And little things like that to just lead people in, to make them look with a little bit more curiosity and then they do the rest.
You see, you don't have to write any more than that. And, ah, so I introduced that, with some resistance. There's always resistance because um, there's a tendency for curators to think - they're, they're thinking of other curators, not of the public, often. And, um, what is self-evident to them - they can't believe what's self-evident to them is not necessarily self-evident to someone else.
And, ah, so that was my first move there. And also, bringing in exhibitions, as I said. You know, the Brisbane girl, growing up in Brisbane in the '30s is never far behind, and, ah, I was able to bring in some wonderful exhibitions that were enormously popular because Perth hadn't had them. [INTERRUPTION]
Did you ever have any controversial exhibitions?
Well, yes, when I exhibited the pictures that Alan Bond had purchased. And the demonstration was the people of Perth who were angry with Bond. Bond had then been - I forget what he was doing with Pinochet, but it was, you know, something ...
Telephone company, yes. And, ah, so there was much sort of anxiety that the Art Gallery of Western Australia was supporting this tycoon that was, you know, perhaps not worth supporting. And my argument of course - I had this angry crowd outside the front of the, the gallery and I thought, well there's only way to deal with that and that is confront them, to go out and talk to them.
Which I did, and they were very - they weren't aggressive at all. And I just put - they put their case - and I put mine. I said, you know, "I take your point. Now my point is that this is an opportunity for the people of Perth to see these paintings, which they won't otherwise see. They're going to the top of that tower which was the big Bond building then, and that's the last we'll ever see of them. And what you're saying, I, I'm not sort of condoning what, or supporting what you are saying, and there are one of two ways of dealing with this. Either refuse to have them, make the point". "That's what we want you to do", you know, they said.
"Well I agree, but, um, where I'm coming from, it's more important people get a chance to see it." And in a funny way, there was a sort of - they didn't really agree with me - but at least there was a sort of, um, a respect on both sides, you know, that, you know, they could see where I was coming from, not agree with it, but they could understand it.
And when the, um, Robert Holmes à Court launched the exhibition, they were battering on the doors outside, and Robert made a very amusing remark about that being the first time he'd noticed people battering on the doors to get into the Art Gallery of Western Australia. But interesting - even more interestingly, he had rung me up from London, when the pictures arrived. He said, "Have you seen the pictures yet?"
I said, "Yes, I did, Robert". And one of the things that really interested me was the Van Gogh, 'The Irises'. Because I looked at that painting and I thought, "My God. That painting looks ..." - oil paint, when it goes on, you know, when it's new is juicy and oily and fresh. When it's a hundred years old, the oil dries out and it subsides, and you'll often get little hairline cracks in a brushstroke, you know, a thick, fat brushstroke.
Because as it dries, it makes these little cracks. And I looked at this and I thought, "Ooh, it doesn't look like a hundred years [sic] old paint to me. It looks as if it was painted yesterday and I ..". and Robert said, "Ah", he said, '"But have you got the right one?" And I said, "Well funny you should say that", I said, "I made the remark this morning that the Van Gogh looks as if it was painted yesterday". "I think it was", he said.
And I've since found out that it wasn't the Van Gogh, it was a facsimile. Someone had done an exact copy, a very good copy, and that the real Van Gogh had never left Sotheby's New York. Because as you know, Alan Bond never paid for it. And I was talking to this Van Gogh expert who was in a position to know and I said, "Are you sure of that?" He said - I said, "Because I was very suspicious".
And I've since looked at it. It's now in the Getty. And I've looked at the very brushstroke that I'd looked at in Perth, and I've looked at the brushstroke in the Getty, and sure enough, it had the little hairline cracks in it. So that wasn't the Van Gogh we were looking [at] - it wasn't the real Van Gogh that we were looking at.
What do you think about Alan Bond's getting mixed up in the art business? What kind of effect did that have, do you think, on art? Was it a positive one - that you had somebody like that wanting to collect - or did you see that as a negative?
Oh, he, he was not a - really interested - he was just interested in building his persona, through art. He was no use to me as, as the Gallery Director. He was a positive, um, um, negative effect on the art market, because what the dealers were trying to do at that point - you remember the '87 crash. This happened just after the '87 crash. The message they were trying to get out is the financial markets are in disarray, the art market on the other hand, is rising.
And that's why - was it Christie's or Sotheby's? Sotheby's, it was. Sotheby's, it was really a cooked up deal, the whole thing. He never had the money to pay for it. He never paid for it. He never - you know, he didn't even put down a deposit of half the amount, fifty-six million, I think it was. And when you think about it, they're not going to let the picture out of their possession when someone hasn't put the money down.
And indeed, he never put the money down.
For you as someone who works in this art world, and has always, this relationship between money and art, have you thought a lot about that?
Well it's - I've thought a great deal about that, because it's always standing firmly between you and what you want to do, the pictures you want to buy. And, um, and the, the art market out there, the private market - see, the only people who can ever pay that sort of money are individuals. No institution, not even the Getty - well perhaps the Getty could - but there are not many institutions that can pay that sort of money.
So that means that all of these prized paintings, you know, the really top of the market, all go into private collections, of multi-multi-billionaires. And, ah, that is a problem for, um, public galleries, because you're never going to be able to own them. All you can do, all you can hope to do is borrow them from time to time, for - in exhibitions.
And that, of course, is the whole point of the so-called blockbuster exhibition. There is a reason to apply for, and get, the line of works that reside in private collections, and bring them together into a context that people can enjoy and understand a bit better.
How did the family cope with the move to Western Australia?
Badly. Peter said, "Well you might as well just go. Go, go to England, go to America. It's like another country". Peter was devastated. Peter living in Melbourne. Tim less so, because Tim was just starting his life, you know, as [sic] university and, ah, feeling nicely independent. But, ah, the others didn't mind.
Ben and Paul were independent by this time. They didn't mind. I think Roy was keen to go, and Roy - Western Australia really suited him down to the ground. He loved it. He made some very good friends there that he's continued to have. You know, George and Jane Haines. George Haines and Jane Martin. And the whole thing - I loved Western Australia.
I said to Roy, "It's like being on holiday all the time, even though you're at work". You know, there's something that - we were living at Fremantle, we had this lovely house overlooking the Indian Ocean. Every morning you'd wake up and there's just this strip of ultramarine blue across your window with a little sailing boat ... [INTERRUPTION]
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